A Patriotic Faith

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 10:30 a.m. service. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2011 Daniel Harper.

Happy Independence Day weekend! Aren’t you glad that Independence Day is on a Monday this year, so we get a three day weekend? It’s a three day weekend, and all of us came to church anyway! But then, I like having that peaceful moment in the Sunday morning service at least once a week.

Because tomorrow is Independence Day, I would like to reflect with you on the relationship between patriotism and liberal religion.

When it comes to Independence Day, you probably know that quite a few of the people who were deeply involved in the Revolutionary War belonged to Unitarian or Universalist churches. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, belonged to a Universalist church. John and Abigail Adams belonged to a Unitarian church, and John was first vice-president and second president of the new country. John Murray, minister of the Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, served as a military chaplain, and so did Dr. Samuel West, minister of the church in Dartmouth, Massachusetts that later became Unitarian. We Unitarians and Universalists were deeply involved in the struggle for American independence. And for some of them, liberal religion and political independence were definitely connected. Dr. Samuel West, in one prominent example, preached sermons in which he justified the Revolution from a liberal religious point of view.

And the connection between patriotism and liberal religion continued up through the middle of the twentieth century. Many Unitarian and Universalist churches used to display framed honor rolls of all the people who saw active service in the Second World War. Up until 1993, we had “American, the Beautiful” in our hymnal; I remember singing it in Sunday services when I was a boy. Even today, a good number of our Unitarian Universalist congregations display American flags in their main meeting space, often alongside the United Nations flag; for we have always been concerned with international community, as well as with our own nation.

Yet these days we increasingly shy away from any mention of patriotism in our congregations. Too often these days, patriotism is reduced to an overly simplistic conception based on an unquestioning acceptance of political slogans. But as religious liberals, we can never be unquestioning, and our liberal religious conception of patriotism is a complex affair; it cannot be reduced to a political sound bite. With this in mind, I’d like to tell you three stories of three different notions of liberal religious patriotism.


First let me tell you about Robert Gould Shaw. He was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. The family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community, when little Robert was five, and then to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Unitarian church, when Robert was in his teens. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of Shaw’s family, he surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. when that short-lived unit disbanded, he then was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain, August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle of Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled “Memoirs of the War of ’61,” published in 1920 by George H. Ellis, who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books, tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his letters, and I will read those excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, for they show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he thought African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of [blacks] but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 someone attached to General Strong:

“The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.”

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote: “We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!” (1)

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day, that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.


Now I’d like to tell you about a different kind of patriotism. This is the story of Rev. William E. Short of Palo Alto.

The first Unitarian church in Palo Alto was formally organized in 1906, and lasted through until 1934. In 1916, the congregation called Rev. William E. Short, recently graduated from divinity school, to serve as their minister. Short was a pacifist, and it is said that he found a good deal of quiet support for his pacifism among kindred souls in the Palo Alto church of that time.

Short resigned as minister of the Palo Alto church in 1917, and became the Chairman of the Northern California branch of the People’s Council. The People’s Council was a nationwide pacifist organization that opposed the military draft. This was in the days when it was almost impossible to conscientiously object to military service on religious grounds, and I am inclined to understand Short’s service with the People’s Council as a kind of patriotic act: he was upholding the fundamental religious principle of religious tolerance on which the United States was founded. As a matter of incidental interest, the chair of the national organization was Scott Nearing, later known as the co-author of the back-to-the-land book Living the Good Life; William Short served on the national executive committee with Nearing.

By late 1917, the United States had entered the war, and Major General Ralph Van Deman of the Army decided something had to be done about the People’s Council in general, and more specifically something had to be done about William Short’s activities. The People’s Council headquarters in San Francisco were raided twice — no search warrant was issued — and when that failed to turn up anything, Van Deman decided to bring William Short under military jurisdiction for draft evasion. Van Deman and the military lawyers successfully argued that once he was no longer serving a local church, Short was no longer a minister, and therefore was no longer exempt from the draft. He was taken into military custody in September 1918, interrogated, imprisoned, and eventually released, after the war was over, in early 1919. (2)

The story of Rev. William E. Short is not what you’d call a classic story of patriotism. He actively the military establishment, and did so at great personal cost. Yet his was a form of liberal religious patriotism. He was holding his country accountable to its highest ideals. He challenged involuntary military service based on his understanding of the ideals of his Unitarian faith.

His was not a blind unquestioning patriotism, he certainly pushed the boundaries of his day and age; nevertheless, Short was indeed a patriot. He did what he thought was best for his country. Many people disagreed with him; the American Unitarian Association itself disagreed with him. Yet that is the uncomfortable thing about patriotism: there is never a perfect consensus about what constitutes a patriotic act. Not everyone thought that Robert Gould Shaw did the right thing be commanding an all-black regiment. There has never been, and never will be, a perfectly clear definition of patriotism with which all Americans agree.


The third story I have to tell you is short and simple. There have always been Unitarian Universalists serving in the military, but over the past decade or so, we’ve seen a number of Unitarian Universalists choose to serve their country by becoming military chaplains. When I was in seminary a decade ago, military recruiters were actively pursuing Unitarian Universalist seminarians; I was told that the military loved Unitarian Universalist chaplains because we knew how to minister to a wide variety of beliefs, and we don’t proselytize. And now there are several Unitarian Universalist military chaplains who are not only performing the usual duties of a chaplain, but also quietly, and by their very presence, challenging the norm of evangelical Christianity that has come to dominate the U.S. military establishment in recent years.

That’s the story. Now I’m going to engage in some theological reflection with you. Recently, I met and have been corresponding with Rev. Seanan Holland. He is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, currently based in southern California, and preparing with his unit to be shipped to combat duty. In one email message, he outlined a Unitarian Universalist theological grounding of military service, and he has given me permission to read it to you:

“In striving to come to a coherent universalist theology that captures both our hopes for a peaceful world and the reality that at the moment it is not, I see war as an organic reorganization within the web of life. It is a reorganization mediated by humans mostly through our shortcomings/dysfunctions. What this means to those of us who participate in war is that we are witnesses to the sorest of humanity’s dysfunctions — war. Warriors possess a knowledge of an aspect of humanity that most do not want to carry and hopefully won’t ever have to. However the nature of war is such that those of us who have pledged to protect our country don’t always get to choose which conflict to be in and we have very limited power as activists while we are in the military. Those who have more power as activists (many UUs) typically (and understandably) do not possess an intimate knowledge of warfare. This is a sketch of my theological grounding that warriors and non-warriors really have to work together on redeeming conflict — hopefully before it happens.”

I’d like to read you that last phrase once again: “warriors and non-warriors really have to work together on redeeming conflict — hopefully before it happens.” If we follow this suggestion, we will be drawing on one of the great strengths of our liberal religious tradition. We know there are no simple answers to anything. We know that we have to continually question our assumptions. We know that no one person ever has complete access to universal truth. We also know that conflict is inevitable in human affairs, and that we must find ways to resolve or manage conflict as quickly as possible, before it leads to open warfare.

For us religious liberals, patriotism is not a simple matter; like the rest of life, it is complicated, and we’ll never all agree on one single interpretation of it. Yet we know we share certain liberal religious ideals that relate directly to patriotism: the dream of a peaceful world where no person is exploited or subjugated; the dream of life in balance; the dream of a more harmonious existence for all humanity. As religious liberals, our patriotism will be colored by these liberal religious ideals. And so on this Independence Day weekend, may we dedicate ourselves once again to an earth made fair, and all her people free.



(1) Quoted in Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the war of ’61 (1920; the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

(2) Information about Short from: Roy Talbert, Negative Intelligence: The Army and the American Left, 1917-1941, (Univ. of Mississippi Press, 2008), p. 75-77. And: Ex parte Short. District Court, N. D. California, First Division. September 5, 1918. No. 16417. The Federal Reporter, Volume 253, 1919, p. 839.

(3) Personal communication from Rev. Seanan Holland, Major, U.S. Marine Corps, 29 June 2011.